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Whaler's journal sent back to New London — 176 years later

New London — For decades, the aged journal sat on her roll top desk, a gift from her grandmother, its provenance a mystery.

Occasionally, Edwina Owens Badger would look at it and wonder where it came from, its tiny, painstaking cursive barely discernible to her. Over the last 20 years, retired and living in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, she came to believe it belonged in a museum.

A couple of weeks ago, Federal Express delivered it to the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street.

It’s a ship’s journal, an account of the voyage or voyages of the Merrimac (or Merrimack), a 19th century whaling bark that between 1833 and 1857 sailed four times from Newburyport, Mass., and a half-dozen times from New London. Written by a crewman who so far remains anonymous, the journal chronicles the ship’s first New London voyage, which left on July 17, 1844, and returned in May 1847. It brought home 25 barrels of sperm oil, 2,975 barrels of whale oil and 5,000 pounds of whalebone, a haul worth $36,080.59, according to Robert Owen Decker's "Whaling Industry of New London."

The journal's last entry is dated Nov. 7, 1852, in Maui, a Hawaiian port of call on a subsequent New London voyage.

A roster of the 35-man crew shows more than half were from southeastern Connecticut, mostly New London, including the captain, or master, George Destin. Among the crew’s surnames are Avery, Brushel, Kimball and Watrous.

“I never expected it to be so thrilling,” said Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the New London Maritime Society, which operates the Custom House museum. “Each entry follows a pattern of date, weather, winds — but then you never know what comes next. The entries are brief, but so revealing about the writer’s character, from his parochial views of other cultures to his innate sense of righteousness.”

Laurie Deredita, the society’s librarian, got to examine the journal, now open and delicately cushioned atop a small table in the Custom House, which remains closed to the public amid the coronavirus pandemic. Tamulevich is photographing the journal, a precursor to having it transcribed, microfilmed and prepared for display.

“Such an amazing manuscript,” Deredita said. “The opportunity is just fabulous.”

Handbound in what seems to be canvas, stained and water-marked, the journal is in remarkably good condition, its 76 leaves, or pages, covered with writing on both sides, except for two that are blank. The author’s personal observations and tone mark it as a journal, as opposed to a log, Deredita said, though neither are strictly defined.

One entry stood out right away.

On Christmas Day 1844, after 5 months and 8 days at sea, the anonymous chronicler describes a hearty dinner of “roast beef, pies and gingerbread, new bread and old butter.” Then, he adds, “Those that wished it were treated to gin brandy and wine by Capt. Destin and our Chief Mate — And right glad am I that there were some that had the moral courage enough to refuse even wine.”

Elsewhere, the author recounts the severe punishment endured by a crewman found guilty of some offense: “Danielson abstained from food of any kind (of his own consent) from Sunday night to Thursday night during which time he has been kept shut up (on an average 16 hours out of 24) under the cabin stairs ...” The next day, “The Black Smith imployed makeing handcuffs ... and Capt. D. put them on to him in the afternoon and at this moment while I write — the harsh + gloomy ginglings of his Irons causes my blood to chill within my being.”

When a landing party went ashore on the Cape Verde islands, hoping to trade old bread, flour, rice, clothes, cloth shoes, knives, etc. for pigs, goats, sheep, cattle and fruit, the author found the natives' houses "comfortable I suppose for the climate. But there is nothing but the walls + cieling, furniture not being fashionable as I suppose not necessary. Clothing too is not very fashionable."

'This needs to be someplace'

It was Skip Finley, a retired broadcaster, writer and historian who has lived on Martha’s Vineyard since 1999, who contacted Tamulevich to gauge the maritime society’s interest in the ship’s journal. Badger had brought it to Finley's attention through a bit of serendipity.

Badger belonged to a book club that had begun reading Finley’s “Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy,” which came out in June, and realized he might be able to help her find a home for the journal. She asked Finley’s wife, a fellow book club member, if she could bring Finley the journal.

“I knew immediately what it was,” Finley said. “The fact that it even existed was amazing. In my research, I’ve looked at quite a few ship’s logs and they’re awful reading. I’d rather read a telephone book. They’re difficult, stilted. They often include a lot of technical language. More often than not, they’re incredibly boring."

“But this wasn’t that,” he said of Badger’s journal. “This was legible, well maintained, a journal that, combined with the ship’s log, could give some context to what went on. As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this — this needs to be someplace.’”

Finley approached the Martha's Vineyard Museum, where the research librarian, Bow Van Riper, dug into the Merrimac's history, accessing online databases the Mystic Seaport Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum have developed at whalinghistory.org. The Seaport's G. Blunt White Library, in fact, has a log, or perhaps it's another journal, from the Merrimac's 1844-47 voyage.

"Because the crew was almost exclusively from New London, we passed on it," Van Riper said of the Badger journal. "I remembered there was a maritime museum in New London. I suggested it might be interested." 

To put it mildly, Tamulevich welcomed the offer of such a rare treasure, one that immediately elevates the Custom House Museum's whaling collection.

“What’s so exciting about the journal is that it will lead us in other directions,” she said. “It will lead us to learn more about George Destin and the others who were on the ship. Mystic Seaport has a picture of him (Destin). Since our founding in 1983, we had ceded whaling to the Seaport, which has the Morgan (whaling ship). We didn’t have so much. But now we have quite a few whaling things. We’ve started a whaling corner.”

The maritime society got a boost a year ago from Citizens Bank's donation of a dramatic whaling scene painted in 1929 by the late Lars Thorsen of Noank. Now gracing the Custom House's newly refurbished interior, it previously hung in the bank's former Eugene O'Neill Drive location.

While the ship’s journal has arrived at what may well be its final destination, intriguing questions about the route it took to get there remain. How did Edwina Owens Badger’s grandmother come to possess it?

“She didn’t tell me the story behind it,” Badger said. “I know nothing about it.”

She said her grandmother was from Connecticut and could have had ties to New London. Now 80, Badger always thought she’d make a “winter project” of researching her family’s genealogy.

“It’s unlikely it came from an old boyfriend of her grandmother. You’d need another generation to get that far back,” said Finley, who believes those who study the journal will be able to determine who wrote it. “It could have come from another relative through marriage.”

“Some great stories are going to come out,” he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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